From November through January, does anyone drink anything but Christmas beers? Every shop is flooded with them, every bar is featuring them. Apparently, only a Grinch can resist these festive beers this time of year. I have to say, in general, I'm all for them, but I'm not crazy about them. They're like Thanksgiving dinner. Perfectly fine, and even eagerly anticipated when the time is right, but who wants it every week? I grow weary very quickly of beers that are just over-spiced – often way over-spiced – versions of a brewery's normal ale. There's only so much cinnamon and nutmeg I can take, and I don't need it in my beer very often. A good Christmas beer should be something special. Generally, I think they should be big, strong sipping beers. This is the time for beers that'll warm you up and calm the frazzled nerves. But, there also needs to be some simple, sessionable beers for all those holiday parties. I don't think there is a brewery on the planet that doesn't offer some class of Christmas beer anymore, but most of them can be lumped together and are largely forgettable. But, seeking out the special ones could make the season much merrier.
1. Corsendonk Christmas Ale
I love Belgian beer any time of the year, so I had to have one on the list. I could have easily had five. The Corsendonk fits the Christmas beer mold perfectly. It is big, malty and complex. Just tons of flavor from every direction, but nicely balanced, as you'd expect from these guys. There is fruit, spice, grain and a healthy kick of alcohol. My only quibble, and it is minor, is there is maybe a touch too much anise in it for my licorice hating taste buds. Otherwise, it's close to perfect. They spice it up, but there is so much more going on in this beer, that all the spice doesn't feel overblown.
2. Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome
The British versions of holiday beers are winter warmers. Generally, they aren't as spicy as American Christmas beers. Sam Smith can almost always be relied on to provide a perfect example of a particular style, and so it is here. Less spice, but kicked up toasted malt, and extremely dry. They keep the alcohol moderate at 6%, so this could be a good session beer for the party if you can put up with that crackling dryness. There's a good deal of carbonation that helps, and the taste is superb if you prefer malt to hops. This is the beer to grab in the pub between shops while doing the gift buying. Everyone will be glad you did.
3. Great Lakes Christmas Ale
Coming from Cleveland, it would be impossible not to include this over-hyped beer. Yes, it's okay, but people have lost their minds over this stuff. It's usually sold out by December, and hard feelings abound from stores and bars that think they aren't getting their full quota. You'd think this was the one and only Christmas beer available around here – and Great Lakes loves every minute of it. Although, like almost every Christmas beer, the recipe varies slightly year to year, this stuff is almost always too spicy. If you like over-spiced Christmas beers, I suppose this is as good as any. I like it once or twice a season, and in small doses, but I wouldn't fight for a bottle.
4. Sierra Nevada Celebration
This is one for the hopheads, of which I'm not particularly one. Most Christmas beers are malty and tend to be sweet. Leave it to Sierra Nevada to hop it up in their typical fashion. There is a decent malt base to this beer, but that tends to just smooth things out enough for all the crunchy hops on top. This still won't compete with a huge hop monster beer you'd find at other times of the year, but at Christmas, this is as hoppy as you'd like it.
I saved the wild card for last. This is really the most special beer on the list, but is also the rarest and hardest to find. In fact, they only brew it one day a year, December 6th, and it takes almost a year to brew. It is also the strongest lager in the world at around 15%. Brewed in a suitably Christmassy environment at the base of the Alps. It smells very malty and strong, but is almost creamy. And very, very warming. If you're stuck on a mountain, this is what you hope the dog brings. Obviously it is potent, and you're not going to have many even if you can procure them. But, if you can find it, this is Christmas in a bottle.